`ECONOMISTS still don't know where babies come from, economically speaking,'' says Shirley Burggraf. ``Children aren't mushrooms - they don't just pop up.''
Professor Burggraf, currently a fellow at Radcliffe College's Bunting Institute in Cambridge, Mass., has a knack for stating ideas in a way that gets attention. Her point here is that economists know a lot about farms and factories but not much about families. ``Women's nonmarket roles [cooking, raising children, volunteering, etc.] have been largely excluded from economic analysis in the grand tradition of Western political thought that has separated the arena of public affairs from the private world of family functions and then concentrated on the public half of the equation,'' she states.
Burggraf wants to lessen that lack of understanding with a book she is writing on ``the feminine economy,'' dealing with the economics of work and family. Out of this comes a radical idea: ``Privatize'' the Social Security pension system in a way that parents would have first claim on taxes their children pay to the system.
The goal is to restore an economic incentive for couples to produce ``virtuous children.'' In some developing countries today, and in industrial nations of yore, children provided their parents with unpaid labor on farms or in workshops, and support in their senior years. With creation of the Social Security system, the government severed the direct pension connection between parents and their children. The working generation, through Social Security taxes, supports the retired generation as a group. No parent has a claim on the system by virtue of being a parent.
That system is incredibly unfair, Burggraf contends. ``Since the only assets on which the Social Security system has a claim are the future earnings of our children, it is the people who sacrifice market wages for child rearing who are most likely to get back less than what they contribute to the system. If women stopped bearing and rearing children, there wouldn't be any Social Security system.'' She calculates that the wealth loss involved in ``disinheriting'' parents from their children amounts to $16 trillion, roughly equivalent to one-third of the nation's total wealth. No other economic institution - and the family is an economic institution - has ever been subjected to that kind of negative transfer, she claims.
``What if we told farmers they are expected to invest in land, plow the field, fertilize, weed, and water the crops, guard against pests, and do the harvesting, but when the crop comes to market they have no claim on the proceeds?'' Burggraf asks. ``What if we told all investors that we expect them to do the saving, investing, and risk-taking involved in providing capital, but they have no claim on any of the profits? [It is] obviously ludicrous but that is essentially what we expect of families. We expect parents to do most of the work and incur most of the expenses of rearing children and then have no claim on the proceeds, while their children support everyone else in old age.''
Talking of ``something as near and dear as family'' in the language of economists and accountants is somewhat distasteful, she acknowledges. ``To say there is an important economic dimension to the love and caring functions of family is in no way to say that is all there is.''
Her goal is to restore an economic incentive to parenting and to recognize more fully the importance of raising children in an age when many believe that the family is in a state of decline and threatens to take our culture down with it.
``There is an emerging economic actor the world has never seen -
a rational, independent, and informed female who understands the costs and risks of staying in traditional roles and who exercises her right to make choices in the labor market as a free agent,'' she says. ``As a result, we are now confronted with the question of how to get a lot of society's caretaking work done when women are no longer volunteering for their traditional jobs.''
Burggraf admits that her pension proposal needs more detail. Should children make payments for their parents' pension to a fully private or an individualized government system? Is there a final pension safety net for people without children? How do you deal with fathers who abandon their families or divorced parents?
But her plan recognizes, she says, that families don't operate ``on love alone.''